“Welcome to the Real World”


We all knew that one day the fantasy would have to end. Eventually there would be classes and worst of all, perhaps there could even be work! Monday morning our vacation, my longest scholastic summer break ever, finally abandoned us, leaving us to the trenches of European classes. In all honesty it was most likely about time that we used our brains in any sort of vigorous manner. After all it was the 4th of October.

Parco Ducale

The other University of Parma students and I met Caterina in Piazza Garibaldi, the central square of Parma, at 10:15 so that she could show us which bus to take to our Monday lessons of Italian. The seven of us take a class with the Italian professor by ourselves on Mondays but on Tuesdays and Thursdays we have a larger class with the other International students at the University. I knew that the class would be fairly basic grammar, but according to Caterina there weren’t enough advanced students (only one other girl would qualify) to warrant us having our own class. She said that our professor would give us our own program, but regardless I had no fear that this class would be a review for me.

The first thing, though, about which we were struck upon arrival at the University’s “campus” was its dismal appearance. The buildings appeared to have been built in the 70’s, that terrible decade of architecture, and were obviously not well kept. The buildings had no coherent qualities, the grass was muddy and the layout of the campus haphazard. It looked more like a prison or broken down industrial complex than a school. The gray sky did not help it’s depressing aura.

Once inside we went to what appeared to be more a conference room than a classroom. We sat around what can only aptly be described as a giant conference table and an overhead projector illuminated the wall behind the head seat. Che strano! Whatever, it’s always easier to learn a language in small groups so I figured that this would only be a much needed opportunity to practice my Italian. Well, I was wrong. I’m not sure if it was because it was the first lesson, but we did nothing. Our professor, a seemingly eccentric but nice lady, went to the computer and showed us Italian newspaper websites, which generally is a very good, and difficult, way to practice a language; that is if you read the articles. Our professor seemed content to only show us around the various as  and television station websites of Parma. Then class was over and she showed us the school “gym.” At least I think it was a gym, we didn’t actually see any equipment or places to workout, only the administrative office with a list of classes. I did get the number of some coach with the basketball team, though, if I ever feel the desire to play.

I spoke to the professor in our walk and asked if we would have a syllabus or an exam structure. She said that she hasn’t yet decided because we are all on different levels. Well, it looks as if Italian class will be another independent study! Does school even actually exist over here?

Yes it does, something I found out at the start of my next lesson Medieval History. Elizabeth, another girl in my group, and I were led to the classroom by Betta and then left to wait in the crowded, old dirty building for a half hour before the professor showed up. Apparently professors, in Italy, are usually late and show up whenever they desire but require that you be prompt. This classroom, unlike our first one, was located in the center of the city. Instead of having one localized campus, European universities operate throughout the city occupying whichever buildings they see fit.

Anyway, we both knew that this class would be in Italian and we both knew how difficult it would initially be to understand anything that was going on. I was hopeful, however, that as the lesson wore on my brain would adjust itself to the foreign language bit by bit. Still, I figured it would be a good idea to record the lecture. That was a very good idea, because I likely understood about 15 percent of that lecture. My brain had problems keeping up with the translations especially when words that I did not know were said (which happened often). And even worse, especially in a history class, sometimes I had no idea whether a word which I didn’t understand was a name or a word! And even when I did understand that which our professor said, it was hard to out that piece of information into a historical context because I had missed the previous information. Individuals pieces of historical knowledge are fairly worthless without the surrounding story. My notes are bare and disjointed. A bit horrifying.

I think that was the most helpless I have ever felt in Italy. It was almost as if I didn’t know a single word of the language. My conversational Italian is fairly good, but I guess that my academic is in need of some serious work. I felt like a kindergardener in a college course. How am I supposed to learn anything? How is it possible when I barely understand that which is being said. My brain has a hard time focusing so hard on the words, which takes away from my ability to listen while taking notes. I have a hard time separating ambient noise from the professor’s voice. It’s almost as if I’m an old person (no offense) who’s hearing and motor skills are disappearing. In fact, I can hardly take notes because when I do I miss that which the professor says. I want to learn. I really do. Hopefully my brain can catapult itself into a realm of comprehension soon.

After the lesson we were swept up by Caterina and our tutor for the class, Max, who teaches the History of Parma to the Boston College students who don’t speak Italian meaning that he speaks English very well. We went to meet with the professor of the class to discuss how we could orient our syllabus so that neither Elizabeth or I would fail. We both looked fairly dejected so Caterina asked how it went. “Non voglio parlarne,” was my response (I don’t wanna talk about it). She laughed and said that it would be hard, but I better get used to.  “Welcome to the real world, she said. Man the real world was hard, at least it was until we went to the professor’s office.

Caterina, Max and the professor quickly launched into a discussion about what kind of program he should outline for us. Apparently he had no idea we would be there, had no concept of the difference between American and European university credit systems (of which there are many). In fact he seemed completely caught off guard and a little put off by the idea of having two Americans in his class. Soon, after much rapid Italian (which I’m proud to say I mostly understood) they agreed to a program for the two of us. Instead of taking the usual European final which consists of an in-class exam and at least an oral exam we would only be required to write a 10-12 page research paper. Even better, we could read the main textbook in English! Our other readings would have some Italian, but when t came to the research paper we could use materials in any language we desired. The class, the real world, immediately went from dauntingly difficult to exceedingly manageable. Caterina asked, afterward, if it would be too much work. I laughed. This work barely holds a candle to that which I do at BC. Technically the lectures are optional for us because we are following our own program, but I will continue to go in the hopes of learning (I do love history after all) and in the hopes that my brain switches into Italian mode. But, all in all, that’s another independent study, meaning that three of my four classes are independent. Wow.

Parma Sunset

After that stressful day I needed some wonderful cooking, which Nice was happy to provide. We had a simple, yet wonderful dinner of black bean soup, baked zucchini, potatoes and those awesome fried balls of rice plus, of course, Lambrusco. My brain was not functioning well but as per usual we spoke in Italian and I can already notice a sizable increase in my conversational abilities since coming to Parma. I’m constantly surrounded by Italian and have to use it often, unlike in Florence where there were days where I barely spoke the language. The only way to truly learn a language is to immerse oneself into it, and in Parma I get this opportunity.

I spent the night at the guys apartment (I needed some man talk in my life) and then went for a failed run with Abby before I had to return to my Medieval history class. I was in a rush, and it was hot out, so I threw on a T-shirt and shorts. Big mistake. Walking into class people did not even attempt to hide their stares of disdain, comments and whispered conversations guessing my nationality. I didn’t care much. Class was once again difficult but I found that I understood much more of the lesson than I had the previous day! Perhaps my brain was adjusting. Maybe there would come a point when I would be able to understand the entirety of the lecture!! I left the class confident in my abilities and even began listening to the recording of the first lecture finding that when I actually payed attention I could understand much more than I had when I first listened to it! Great news. Italian is all about confidence and at that point I felt quite confident.

That night we had our first Italian class with the rest of the international students. The classroom did not seem very fit for a language class. It was long and skinny so that the 50+ of us extended far enough back to where the overhead projector was a bit hard to say. But even more discombobulated than the classroom was the lesson itself. Our professor’s first words were that the lessons were not obligatory. We could come if we desired and the only obligatory thing would be the final. Once she had finished that sentence the class immediately became a joke. People  talked, and not in whispers, but full-fledged loud discussions. It was impossible to hear the professor or see the board, but when nobody answered her request to describe an event from infancy I went ahead, drawing sarcastic glares from the Frenchies in front of me. Well, I have to score some brownie points especially since I’ll be missing two lessons for my wonderful weekend in Paris! The class was a disaster. I spent the entire time using my new English-Italian dictionary on my iPhone to make a list of new words. Besides the poor structure of the class itself we were learning about the Imperfect tense, something I had done in freshman year of high school. Funnily, though, at one point the professor tried to describe imbrogliare, which means to cheat. She finally gave up and said it in English and then asked me if it was the correct translation. Even in a lecture I can’t escape the translator role!

View from my Window

That lesson plus the general state of university classrooms and buildings made me realize one mode in which America is far superior to Europe; our universities. Classes are basically optional in Italy and when people do go they seem to treat it as a gift to the professor. Classes are crowded, loud and not intimate at all. It’s not the best environment in which to learn, especially for a language! I really hope that they figure something out where I can at least learn some new Italian instead of only doing grammar review. No wonder everybody leaves Europe to come to university in America.

Once that joke was finished Abby, Kim, Caroline and I went back to Nice’s house for a friendly dinner. Matt and Brian were there waiting so we immediately got our little dinner party started. Nice made gnocchi, eggplant, focaccia, lots of Parmesan cheese (really good 30 month old cheese at that) and once the pasta and eggplant was gone she brought out coppa (cured pig neck) which she had to slice with a professional slicer! It was fantastic. Dry, salty, but with pockets of melty soft fat. Unbelievable. And again, not to mention lots of wine. We even had a fantastic apple tart for dinner. I love Nice. She welcomes everyone, even those, such as Matt and Brian, who cannot rightfully speak Italian. Even Annetta, our in house grandma, came down for a visit.

To make the night even better we decided to watch a movie. Katy (Here I must apologize to her for spelling her name wrong the entire time. Way to tell me Pizza) brought over Ratatouille which could not have been a more perfect movie for me to watch before my adventure to Paris. Even though it’s a completely animated movie what could get me more excited for Paris than watching a movie about it’s food! Courtney I cannot wait!!! (yes to see you as well 😉 )

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One Response to “Welcome to the Real World”

  1. Vinny Carrera says:

    Awesome story James please tell me how Paris is! I have been DREAMING of going to France forever…. Good Luck

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